Fitch had shot, not ending, he wanted

March 22, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

COLUMBUS, Ohio - It was a shot Gerald Fitch wanted to take.

The University of Kentucky senior knew his dream of winning a national title would be over if he didn't hit the shot, but that never made him doubt he was going to make it.

"I had a good look. That is a shot I am supposed to make," said Fitch. "I just didn't make it."

Because he didn't make that 3-point shot, Alabama-Birmingham hung on to upset Kentucky 76-75 in the NCAA Tournament Sunday night. The loss knocked UK, the overall No. 1 seed in the tourney, out of the NCAA and meant Fitch and his senior teammates would leave UK without the national title he so desperately wanted.


"I most definitely thought before I got here that I would win at least one national title," said Fitch, who had a team-high 17 points in 38 minutes of play. "The main thing was going to be trying to win at least two. But it is hard, a lot harder than I realized. Now I'll never know what it feels like to be a champion."

Fitch, UK's leading scorer and most valuable player in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, says not winning a national title leaves a huge void in his collegiate career.

"That's a big hole not to reach a Final Four in your career, especially being at Kentucky, a school that is known for national championships," Fitch said. "I mean, it's a big hole.

"I can't accept not winning a title. With all the great history behind Kentucky basketball, it is a great disappointment for me to leave here without a title. That's why I came here. For me to be one of the leaders on this team, it is my responsibility to show what kind of team we have. I might not ever get over this."

The closest he came to the Final Four was last season when the Wildcats reached the Elite Eight before losing to Marquette. He was sure this would be Kentucky's year. The Wildcats had won 10 straight games coming into Sunday's game and were confident they could win the national title this season.

"I think that is a legacy all our seniors wanted to leave," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "Gerald always had that goal, but he's also always been a team player. He's about what is best for the team because he wants to win. That's never been an issue with him."

That's why he offered no excuses after Sunday's loss. He missed three games midway through the SEC race after injuring his hand. Smith kept him on the bench after the injury before recently putting him back in the starting lineup. He also hurt his knee in a collision during Friday's NCAA win over Florida A&M.

"I can take the pain," Fitch said. "It's not why we lost. I was fine."

Even though he was having an off shooting night (5-for-16 for the game), he was sure he would make the last shot. UAB took a 76-75 lead with 12.2 seconds to play. Smith wanted point guard Cliff Hawkins to penetrate either for an easy shot or pass inside to Chuck Hayes. The Blazers stopped Hawkins and had Hayes covered. However, Fitch was open in front of the UK bench and Hawkins got him the ball.

"I was sure he would make it," senior teammate Antwain Barbour said. "He always does."

Smith liked Kentucky's chances when the shot went up, too.

"Gerald was our best outside shooter. He was open. It just didn't go down," Smith said. "I thought it was good. It was just off to the right. He's made a bunch of those shots for us in his career."

Fitch ended his career No. 22 on UK's all-time scoring list with 1,391 points. He also finished fourth in career 3-pointers made with 199 and tied for sixth in 3-point percentage at 39.6.

"My career here has been great," Fitch said. "I have a lot of great memories. I have had fun doing everything from playing to hanging out with my teammates to just meeting fans. I regret a few things I did, but everything has worked out for the best."

Fitch had a rocky sophomore season. He worked his way into UK's starting lineup as a freshman with his defense and rebounding even though he came to Kentucky known mainly as a 3-point shooter.

However, his sophomore year he was suspended three times for fighting with a teammate, breaking curfew and having a fake ID, and violating a team rule at the SEC Tournament.

Yet Smith never seriously considered dismissing Fitch from the team. He felt he was a "father figure" to Fitch and knew his troubled past gave him no choice but to give Fitch another chance.

"I just felt like he needed to know that we believed in him and cared about him," Smith said. "I knew he would be fine."

Fitch's parents had divorced when he was an infant. He had relied on his older brother for guidance, but his brother was shot to death seven years ago in Miami before Fitch's high school junior season in Macon, Ga.

Fitch has two tattoos as a tribute to his brother and has some of his brother's pictures and Army mementos in his dorm room as a daily reminder of his brother's love.

"Without a dad, he was the one who gave me advice on a lot of things, especially if I wasn't acting right or doing the things I should be doing," Fitch said.

"He would buy me things that my mother couldn't afford. It was awful when he died, the lowest point of my life. Thank goodness I had basketball. Besides my family, basketball was my savior."

He wants to be able to help his mother for what she did for him. That's why a professional basketball career is so important to him and has provided extra motivation to improve his game during his UK career.

"Playing in the NBA is huge, not for me, but because of what I could do for my mother," Fitch said.

That's in the future. Today he'll still be thinking about the shot he missed and the championship ring he'll never have.

"A lot about my past has to do with how I play here," Fitch said. "My career is always going to have a void in it because I don't have the one thing that truly defines your college career.

"I guess they just wanted it more than us. They just made bigger plays than us. They won the game. That's all that mattered. They won the game."

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